When Rick Hansen set out to wheel around the world on his Man in Motion World Tour in 1985, he had hoped the tour would start off with a bang — just maybe a different kind than the one he got. Mere moments into wheeling out of the parking lot of Vancouver’s Oakridge Mall on a journey that would span over 40,000 kilometres, Hansen’s support vehicle hit the ceiling of the parkade exit, sending equipment flying from the top of the roof.
“The box [on the roof] shattered, and the wheelchair equipment spilled all over the road,” says Hansen, “and these waving, cheering, 200 well-wishers looked in stunned disbelief and thought, ‘He’s going around the world in a wheelchair, and he can’t even get out of the parking lot.’”
Such was the beginning of Hansen’s tour, which would span two years and 34 countries in the name of promoting accessibility and finding a cure for spinal cord injury. Paralyzed at the age of 15 after hitching a ride in the back of a pickup truck that lost control, Hansen had become a world-class athlete by the time of the tour, having won 19 international wheelchair marathons, along with earning six Paralympic medals and winning three world championships.
It wasn’t always that way for Hansen, a native of Port Alberni and later Williams Lake, British Columbia; in the early days after the injury, he had wrestled with resentment and blame.
“You can imagine all the things that I kind of went through in my head,” he says. “I had to reframe and challenge those perceptions and those assumptions, and [realize] they were the source of my pain. Not the use of my legs, not the broken back.”
“I had to reframe and challenge those perceptions and those assumptions, and [realize] they were the source of my pain. Not the use of my legs, not the broken back.” – Rick Hansen
One of the earliest mentors for Hansen was Stan Stronge, a man considered the “granddaddy of wheelchair sports.” At the time, Stronge managed the Vancouver Cable Cars, a wheelchair basketball team that Hansen would join and later recruit Terry Fox to.
“[Stronge] made me realize that nowhere in the definition of an athlete does it say you need to use your legs in order to be one,” says Hansen.
As Fox embarked on his Marathon of Hope in 1980, Hansen began to think about his own dreams of wheeling around the world.
“I thought, ‘Maybe what I should do is try to pay it forward by doing something extraordinary that would shock people to rethink and move from disability to ability.’ Show what was possible if you could remove barriers in people’s lives, and to do something that was seemingly impossible, which would be to push a wheelchair around the world,” says Hansen.
By March of 1985, he was on the road — first through the United States, and then into Europe, the Middle East, New Zealand, Australia, Eastern Asia, and then back through the United States and across Canada. Hansen wheeled an average of 85 kilometres a day, the equivalent of a double-marathon. From the start, there were challenges.
“I thought, ‘Maybe what I should do is try to pay it forward by doing something extraordinary that would shock people to rethink and move from disability to ability.’” – Rick Hansen
“The self-doubts are always there that you’re battling, and that’s your biggest challenge,” he says. “You’re ill, and then you’re injured, and you’re hearing that you’re out of money, and you don’t know if you can go another two weeks without shutting the tour down. All of those things are real, but the other things are, well, why are we here? Well, we made it another day, another 113 kilometres.”
By the time Hansen returned to Vancouver, he had spent two years, two months, and two days on the road.
“I broke through that banner, and the sign behind me said, ‘Welcome Home, Rick. The End is Just the Beginning.’ And I kind of laughed that off,” says Hansen. “I was going, ‘Yeah right, I’m finished, man. I’m done.’”
The tour had raised $26 million for spinal cord research and accessibility initiatives. Hansen thought he might return to competitive racing, but after his first practice session, he was spent.
“I guess what I needed, and I didn’t realize it at the time, was to reframe, because I had been trying to live an old goal I set two years earlier, and I hadn’t had enough space to decompress and to really absorb the enormity of what happened to me on the tour,” he says. “I’d seen the barriers and the real scope and size of the mountain to climb. The tour was just a baby step forward, and we had so far to go, and I really felt in some way compelled to want to find my way to be part of that journey and to continue to move forward.”
“The tour was just a baby step forward, and we had so far to go.” – Rick Hansen
Hansen’s alma mater, the University of British Columbia, offered him a job to continue his work as a champion for accessibility and inclusion. In 1988, Hansen started the Rick Hansen Foundation to continue the work he’d begun with the Man in Motion World Tour.
“The reality is that there was a long way to go when I finished the Man in Motion Tour. Mostly, people thought of spinal cord research as a bit of a fantasy to find a cure,” says Hansen. “And of course, accessibility was still considered largely a charitable endeavor to support people with disabilities.”
In the years since, the Rick Hansen Foundation has continued advocating for the removal of barriers for people with disabilities, raising over $300 million for spinal cord research and accessibility initiatives. In 2008, the Rick Hansen Institute was formed to lead global collaboration in spinal cord injury research.
“Here I am, 31 years later, after the end of the Man in Motion Tour, and I’m just so grateful for the experience. I’m so grateful for the people who have influenced my life and helped me to stay on this course to keep moving forward toward the ultramarathon of social change,” says Hansen.
“We’ll keep driving that forward so the 1.3 billion people on the planet today living with a disability will not feel they need to be cured in order to be whole as human beings,” he adds. “I know we’ll get there.”
This episode of Story Untold was transcribed by Emma Tyrrell (emmatyrrell.com).